Dancer in the Dark: Chloe Honum’s The Tulip-Flame

tulip flameOften books of poetry need to be parceled out in installments to savor and digest. I’ve always liked this about poetry. You can take your time, be a careful reader, inhabit the world of each poem for a while. Chloe Honum’s debut book of poems The Tulip-Flame is different. It demands to be read in one sitting, cover to cover, so urgent is the voice in each poem, and I must say, it’s really a pleasure to sit captive with this book. Even if you aren’t a frequent reader of poetry, you’ll enjoy Honum’s poems.

Winner of the 2013 Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize, The Tulip-Flame is at its heart a record and reflection of the poet’s mother’s death from suicide. Even the poems that aren’t overtly about Honum’s mother carry in them the dramatic charge of her truncated life. There’s a loose narrative that the book holds to, beginning with poems about Honum’s childhood and then progressing through her adulthood. Along the way, Honum writes in deceptively simple language as she addresses the complex emotional journey of her narrator’s transformation into womanhood. Her poems are tightly edited to showcase captivating metaphors and evocative lyricism. The natural world shimmers in the background: “birds [fly] from the woods’/ fingertips.” “…The gray sky [pins]/ a single planet in its hair.” Often nature is personified to sit in judgment of the narrator: “Sometimes the sky is violet above a jury of silver birds.” The effect is one of foreboding. Even the trees are unsettled in these poems, and birds are especially ominous: “Out of the blackest/ cold-wet air, the crow seems molded.”

Honum was an ambitious ballerina in childhood, and the rigors and pleasures of dancing are often themes in her poems. In “Dress Rehearsal,” the narrator practices under the guidance of a teacher who directs her to identify with a bird outside the dance studio, saying, “You are its mother.” The narrator is not so sure: “But in a crow’s sky-knowing mind/ could I be so misconstrued?” She ends the poem by twining together the ballerina’s commitment to her craft with the literal and symbolic loneliness inherent in midwinter:

…Practice, practice.

I am smoke in darkness, climbing away

from a burning hut in an otherwise empty field

on which the fire is slight and low,

and the rest is snow.

The aspect I love most about Honum’s poems in The Tulip-Flame is her knack for creating arresting images and clever metaphors. A turkey “[looks] as though/ it had made itself/ out of morning’s spare parts.” “[Leaves swirl] against my door/ like words to a sentence,/ out of order and burning.” “…the trees become like children/ walking home, asleep on their feet.” Often her poems feel so urgent and readable because they address inherently dramatic events—not only her mother’s suicide, but the demise of a romantic relationship and the death of a dear friend. And yet, the poems remain tightly controlled, never giving way to melodrama or emotional manipulation to tug the readers’ heartstrings. When she writes about death, she does it so beautifully, with such accessible language and striking metaphors, that it becomes impossible to not connect with the poem and fall in love with her language. In “Dressing Room” she writes about identifying a friend’s body:

At the hospital morgue, I put on purple gloves, which made

my hands look like fish beneath the surface of a pond. A man

unzipped the bag so I could see my friend’s face.

Most of the poems in The Tulip-Flame are short free verse, along with a few prose poems and two gorgeous villanelles. When Honum indulges in sound play, the effect is so beautiful, I long for her to do it more. A moth is “a tattered scrap of a thing./ My voice. It’s see-through wings.” Throughout, the reader traces the coming of age of Honum’s narrator. Girlhood is never frivolous in this book. It’s serious, introspective, thoughtful, grave, committed, and often pained. I suspect I connect so much with Honum’s poems in The Tulip-Flame because I was also once a serious, thoughtful girl. Even if reading poetry is not something you usually like to do, I recommend this book of lovely, heartbreaking poems. You’ll want to finish it all in one go. Luckily, it will only take you about one hot cup of tea or coffee to do so.

Kate Gaskin loves to curl up with a good book of poems. She reads and writes in Pensacola, FL where she lives with her toddler and husband. Her poems and other writing have appeared in The Examined Life, Turtle Island Quarterly, and Cherry Tree. More poems are forthcoming from Kindred, Tar River Poetry, and Hobart. You can find her at katebgaskin.com or at Twitter, where she has no idea what she’s doing.

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